Why gender hierarchy makes no Biblical sense to me

My wife and I decided to do something bold for our wedding. Each of us preached while the other person washed our feet, rotating halfway through the sermon. The text we preached on was the controversial Ephesians 5:22-33 passage which says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord.” I’ve been thinking of our sermon lately as I’ve encountered the reviews of megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll’s new book Real Marriage, which apparently takes his views on the divinely ordained inferiority of women to a new level. Rachel Held Evans is gentler in her review than conservative evangelical blogger David Moore. I’m not going to talk about a book that I don’t have time to read, but I thought I would share some of what my wife and I preached about as my contribution to this week’s blogosphere conversation about marriage.

Ephesians 5 compares the husband /wife relationship to the relationship of Christ with the church. In particular, Paul writes that Christ’s role is to wash the church (5:26), which is actually one of the most important (and submissive) acts that Jesus performs for His disciples in John 13, telling them to go and do the same for other people (v. 15). So when Cheryl and I preached, we connected the two passages, particularly focusing on the way that Peter tried not to let Jesus wash his feet.

Peter’s protest brings to light a paradox about foot-washing. It’s unclear who has the power because it’s equally humiliating to wash the dirtiest part of another person as it is to be washed by another person. Only small children and adults who are physically or mentally incapacitated need others to wash them. Washing someone else’s feet is both a submissive and paternalistic act at the same time. Peter isn’t just scandalized by Jesus’ self-effacement; he doesn’t want to be disempowered by being the recipient of Jesus’ servanthood.

So what I said in my wedding sermon is that I can’t play Jesus the whole time in our marriage without committing the sin of Peter. In order to avoid sin, I need to let my wife be Jesus so I can be the church. Sometimes I need to wash her feet and sometimes I need to let her wash my feet. Sometimes I need to be her pastor and sometimes she needs to be my chaplain. In Mark 10:42-45, Jesus gave his disciples the basic Biblical paradigm for understanding servant leadership:

You know that those who are regarded as 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 slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

A Christian leader is supposed to be the “slave of all.” The only thing that holds this in tension is that we are also “slaves to Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:1 and other places). I cannot do whatever other people tell me to do, because my master is Christ, but I exist to serve others. In my church, my goal is to empower every member to be a minister and do the work of the kingdom. The only distinction between me as a pastor and them as ministers is that my call is to empower and equip them to live out their calls. There is no reason for them to submit to me. They’re supposed to submit to Christ just like I am, and they should listen to what I preach or ignore me altogether according to how well I help them do that. So if your pastors try to say that you’re supposed to submit to them, tell them that that they’re being just like a Gentile prince! They should be submitting to Christ and to you.

In the same way that my job as a pastor is to put myself beneath the people in my congregation so that they can do God’s work, my job as a husband is to submit to my wife by encouraging and empowering her to do what God has called her to do. That’s not to say that her job as my wife is any different, but even if I were the “official” spiritual head of our house, there would be no hierarchy if I exercised my leadership in a Christlike way. The only thing I am authoritative about with my wife is I refuse to let her give up her call. There were points when juggling motherhood and seminary got pretty rough, but I would not let her drop out, because I know that she has gifts as a pastor that I don’t have. It’s been hard to let my wife stay at home the last couple of years, but she loves being a mom and she does amazing ministry in our church without having an official title.

So I’m really puzzled as to how true Christian servant leadership can exist in the kind of “complementarian” household Mark Driscoll and other reformed pastors teach their men to run (I hate the term “complementarian” by the way, because it’s such a dishonest euphemism; just say hierarchical). When my wife and I have to make decisions, we sometimes argue, but we always end up coming to some kind of consensus in the end or else we don’t make a decision and come back to it later. There’s never been a point where it would occur to either of us to say, “I have made the decision for this family and that’s final!”

Is that what complementarians think that a husband is supposed to say? What do you do if your wife disagrees? Slap her? The power of the Gentile princes that Jesus talks about in Mark 10:42 is always ultimately derived in the threat or act of physical violence. Servant leaders who emulate Jesus can never impose their will on others by force. Jesus’ power is derived in His complete submission to those who disagreed with Him to the point of letting them crucify Him when He had all the resources of the Creator of the universe at His disposal. If Jesus is my model for how to love my wife like He loved the church, then I can’t see a reason why there would be any gender hierarchy in my household.

16 thoughts on “Why gender hierarchy makes no Biblical sense to me

  1. Pingback: Have we ‘danced’ too? | Christian Egalitarian Marriage

  2. This is an excellent article, and I love the way you state that if a husband is properly acting as Jesus did when He laid down his life, heirarchy is no longer in view. I do question whether in the first-century Roman world, a man would find it equally humiliating to have his feet washed by a slave than to be the slave doing the washing. I suspect that is an anachronistic application of our modern Western mentality to a completely different culture. I don’t think Jesus’ act would have been seen as paternalistic, or that Peter felt disempowered by Jesus’ washing his feet; rather, Peter felt that Jesus was doing something completely outrageous in disempowering Himself so completely. Jesus was certainly demonstrating a radical new way to treat one another in that world.

    In light of that– I think, Jason, that even the idea of a Captain and his First Officer includes a heirarchy and authority-subordination which, though it certainly existed in first-century marriages, the Holy Spirit, through Paul, was leading the Ephesians away from. We, on the other hand, tend to misunderstand the nature of first-century marriage as compared with marriage today, and thus to think authority-subordination is part of God’s plan when it was actually part of Ephesian culture.

    • Thanks for pointing out the anachronisms. We have to keep in mind that Paul was proposing a major upgrade in how women were viewed in his cultural context, not a downgrade.

  3. So a comment on a book you haven’t read, about a situation you don’t know about, about a relationship style you’re not comfortable with?

    The key to dominant/submission relationships is not to “dominate” your wife, but to be the kind of man she wants to submit to. If you’re strong, gentle, trustworthy, and a thoughtful leader who always has her best interests at heart then she doesn’t have to worry about you abusing her.

    Think of it as the relationship between a Captain and his First Officer.

    • If you lead by persuasion, there’s no hierarchy. There’s only hierarchy when violence or the possibility of violence is present. I don’t have any dispute with leading by persuasion. But if you’re leading in the kind of way you’re describing, there shouldn’t be any need for you to be acknowledged as the leader because you would want your wife to have the confidence to share her opinion and cherish the input you receive from her to the degree that your decision-making is consensual.

      • There’s only hierarchy when violence or the possibility of violence is present.

        I disagree. There’s a hierarchy in the Trinity, and it is not enforced, least of all by violence. If Jesus can submit to the Father and still remain equal, then that tells me that submission (and I do agree with servant leadership btw) is not inherently unequal.

        You seem to paint complimentarianism / heirachy as domination, which is, I think, a straw man – for example, you totally put me off wanting to hear you by the awful line:

        Is that what complementarians think that a husband is supposed to say? What do you do if your wife disagrees? Slap her?

        To have the ultimate responsibility (which I think is a better way of thinking about it, than power or ‘roles’ – which might well be different for different couples, btw) – though it’s not ultimate, in that any authority is derivative from mutual submission to Christ – does not mean a decision will be made with out first hearing arguments and counsel from the other. It does not mean that only one person has a say, or that disagreement is not allowed.

        I actually think both terms – complimentarianism and egalitarianism are unhelpful. Both comps and egals would agree that husband and wife are both of equal value, and that husbands and wives compliment eachother.

        But if you’re leading in the kind of way you’re describing, there shouldn’t be any need for you to be acknowledged as the leader because you would want your wife to have the confidence to share her opinion and cherish the input you receive from her to the degree that your decision-making is consensual.

        As someone who would fit under the comp. banner – I agree. I don’t see any dichotomy between what you describe and the view that sees scripture teach that husbands have a special responsibility to lead their families. I see scripture teach such “headship” not as the domineering caricature you portrayed, but as a servant leader who gives up his life for his wife, as Christ did for his bride.

        • I just don’t see any reason that I would need to clarify my authority over my wife if that were what I believed and I were following Jesus’ model in Mark 10:42-45. If you’re a servant leader, your goal is to empower the person you’re serving. Period. This doesn’t just apply to my wife but my kids and the members of my congregation. I want them to do God’s will for their lives, period. If I lived into my call perfectly, then there is no reason for me to be an intermediary link on that chain.

          The Trinity is not a hierarchy in any way other than ontologically. The Father is the source but not the master of the Son, if the Son is fully God. To say otherwise is Arianism. Of course, penal substitution atonement as it’s articulated in its hardest neo-reformed formulation today basically depends upon Christ not being fully God, so Mark Driscoll may have been right in his seemingly bizarre connection between atonement theory and complementarianism in the fiasco interview. Complementarianism and Arianism go hand and hand.

      • Complementarianism and Arianism go hand and hand.

        err…. no.

        I am not advocating Arianism, despite what you seem to have assumed.

        I just don’t see any reason that I would need to clarify my authority over my wife if that were what I believed and I were following Jesus’ model in Mark 10:42-45.

        Who said I did?

        If you’re a servant leader, your goal is to empower the person you’re serving. Period.

        I would necessarily say that being a servant leader is empowerment “period”. It certainly involves facilitation, but ultimately it means putting the needs of other first and in the family situation, that is to lead them towards Christ.

        As it happens, I can’t actually think of a situation where we couldn’t find some agreement – which is, to restate, why I think it better to talk in terms of responsibility (which is why I find your comment about needing to clarify it so odd). I don’t need to go around telling everyone my responsibility, I need to take it up!

        This doesn’t just apply to my wife but my kids and the members of my congregation. I want them to do God’s will for their lives, period. If I lived into my call perfectly, then there is no reason for me to be an intermediary link on that chain.

        Well not an obvious one, perhaps. Besides, your congregants are still called to submit to your leadership – but again, if we talk about our responsibilities – it’s not your focus to make sure they’re submitting, it’s your job to make sure you’re being a servant leader.

        • Sorry I’m being more adversarial than I need to be. God nailed me with Romans 14:19 this morning: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” And I’m not doing a good job of following it.

          Thinking in terms of my responsibility is a good common ground. Whether others submit to my leadership is between them and God. It is a personal issue for me because I know that my wife has a call and part of my servant leadership towards her is to keep pushing for her to do what she needs to do as part of her ordination process and not let stay-at-home-mom inertia take hold.

  4. This is one of the most refreshing and clear takes on Ephesians 5 that I think I’ve ever heard. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  5. Note from a passerby:

    I stumbled upon this link posted by a friend on a social network and gave it a read. I thought it was interesting, but just wanted to add my 2 cents. I understand that you disagree with a certain view of marriage, but just wanted to ask if calling out another believer in a derogatory way is the way to do it? It seems to me that blogs of this kind, refuting a certain belief system, should be just that -refuting the belief system, not another person or persons.

    As Christians we should, as you said, be slaves to all – including those whom we may disagree with. I don’t think it’s wrong to publicly state that this blog is a statement to the contrary of Mark Driscoll’s book, but to continue with the remarks towards him (and not just the belief system) makes me uneasy.

    • Where do you see derogatory? I say at the beginning that it’s not a response to Mark Driscoll’s book but more a contribution to the general conversation about it. The challenge with writing a blog post is that for the sake of search engines, you have to use specific names of other people who are the topic of conversation. My last line was unnecessary. I’ll change it.

      • Now that I read it over, I agree, I think it was the last line that just bothered me a bit. Thanks for the agreement. Great insight.🙂

  6. Awesome article. You have given me some insight for a message I am working on for next month. Good words for keeping Christ in the center of marriage and all leadership.

  7. Well, thank God you could never be that kind of husband! This is lovely and challenging, Morgan. I saw your comment at Sarah Bessey’s place and came over from there. Glad to find this welcoming space – and blessings to you and to you wife as you continue to wait on the Lord’s guidance together.

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